6 Sep 2018

Rugby: Mo'unga finally at the helm of the All Blacks

7:27 pm on 6 September 2018

First-five Richie Mo'unga will finally get his chance to steer the All Blacks ship this weekend, but as Joe Porter writes, he's not the only player champing at the bit.

Mo'unga fills the rather large boots of Beauden Barrett for the first test played at Trafalgar Park - a sell-out too - with the Crusaders playmaker getting his first real taste at the top level.

So will the 24-year-old ace his exam?

Richie Mo'unga.

Richie Mo'unga. Photo: Photosport

Mo'unga guided the Crusaders to a second consecutive Super Rugby title this season - he was named man of the match in the final - and many fans have been baying for him to start on the biggest stage.

"It's just a dream come true and there's been a lot of hype. I've received so many messages from fans, family and friends, it's been overwhelming," Mo'unga said.

But not as overwhelming as his desire to wear the black jersey.

"I can't wait. It's something I've aimed for and something that this year I've had in my head that I wanted to achieve and to start in a test match, it's an exciting time for me and my family, we're all pumped."

The All Blacks should beat Argentina, but Mo'unga won't get an easy ride with first choice halfback Aaron Smith and first choice second five Ryan Crotty being rested. He'll be sandwiched between the experienced TJ Perenara, and rookie midfielders Ngani Laumape and Jack Goodhue.

Coach Steve Hansen believes it will be a test of the 24-year-old's mental fortitude, but he's backing his boy.

"Test rugby is totally different to Super Rugby, so yes there's pressure. There's always pressure when you're in the All Blacks, you're expected to perform (and to win). He'll (Mo'unga) have more scurrility on him than ever before. It's not just the Canterbury fans that are going to look at him, it will be everybody and the world. But in this (All Blacks) environment you learn to accept that, embrace it and walk toward it. There's no doubting his playing ability, he can play footy. He's confident and I'm confident that he'll front up and play well," Hansen said.

Richie Mo'unga has enjoyed Super Rugby success with the Crusaders but All Blacks coach Steve Hasen warns international rugby is another kettle of fish.

Richie Mo'unga has enjoyed Super Rugby success with the Crusaders but All Blacks coach Steve Hasen warns international rugby is another kettle of fish. Photo: Photosport

This weekend's All Blacks team is one of the most inexperienced of late, with Shannon Frizzell starting at blindside, and Ardie Savea at openside in place of regular Sam Cane, who like Crotty, has been rested after suffering a concussion in the final Bledisloe.

There is also a potential debut for halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, who should get his first test cap off the bench.

At 27, Nehe Milner-Skudder is fast approaching the age many great wings expire, but the injury prone Hurricane is finally back after dislocating his shoulder in the win over South Africa last October.

"It's been a bit of another [his 2017 season was also derailed by injury] roller coaster the last year or so and when the team was read out and my name featured I was pretty pumped and had a big smile on my face, so yeah bloody excited," Milner-Skudder said.

Hansen is also excited by the return of a winger who doesn't really fit the modern mould.

"He's only a little bloke. He's not going to run over the top of you, he's going to run around you or step you, he can step on a sixpence and he's a good man, a top bloke, and he's got a skillset that is unique to him. What he's doing is inspiring young kids to be able to say, 'You can still make it as an All Black at my size,' so I quite like that," Hansen said.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Photo: Photosport

His old coach and teacher from high school, Josh Stewart, said Milner-Skudder's mum had a lot to do with her son's ability. Nehe agreed.

"She's had a massive influence not only on myself but my older bro and sis and a lot of people growing up around Palmy [Palmerston North] and our family. I owe a lot to her, she was always a rock in our upbringing, and my Mum is a big reason why I'm here."

So is she coming down to Nelson to watch?

"She's trying to. It's a bit of a trek from up the East Coast, up Ngāti Porou way down to here [Nelson], but that hasn't stopped her in the past, so hopefully she'll be her cheering me on."

With a logjam of talent out wide, Milner-Skudder is running out of time to cement his place in the team before next year's World Cup in Japan. His Manawatū coach, Jeremy Cotter, has no doubt Nehe will be in the land of the rising sun.

"Yeah absolutely. He's got a point of difference (from other wingers), as he showed in the last World Cup in that every time he gets the ball something happens. He's quick, he's got the ability to beat defenders and create play and little half opportunities for the players around him. He sees half gaps and half chances that others don't see. So get him back on the paddock with the All Blacks and look at the opportunities that he opens up. I definitely think he's got what it takes (to make the 2019 World Cup)," Cotter said.

Milner-Skudder's first chance to prove that is on Saturday night against the Pumas at Trafalgar Park, where he'll be hoping to hot step his way into a permanent place on the All Blacks wing.